A numerical simulator of a pulsed, direct detection laser altimeter has been developed to investigate the performance of space-based laser altimeters operating over surfaces with various height profiles. The simulator calculates the laser's optical intensity waveform as it propagates to and is reflected from the terrain surface and is collected by the receiver telescope. It also calculates the signal and noise waveforms output from the receiver's optical detector and waveform digitizer. Both avalanche photodiode and photomultiplier detectors may be selected. Parameters of the detected signal, including energy, the 50 percent rise-time point, the mean timing point, and the centroid, can be collected into histograms and statistics calculated after a number of laser firings. The laser altimeter can be selected to be fixed over the terrain at any altitude. Alternatively, it can move between laser shots to simulate the terrain profile measured with the laser altimeter.